Brand Positioning: The Benefits of Productive Distancing

An outside perspective can often lead to breakthrough revelations for brands.

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Step Back to See the Big Picture of Your Brand

Productive distancing is a series of techniques that helps you read between the lines of your own stories and find the true potential that really lives inside your brand. Listen to Muse Founder & Principal Jackie Bebenroth's appearance on On Brand with Nick Westergaard or scroll on to read the transcript. 

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Nick Westergaard 

Jackie Bebenroth, welcome to On Brand. 

Jackie Bebenroth 

Hi Nick. Thanks for having me. 

N.W. 

I am excited to chat. I'm really intrigued by your idea as a positioning expert on productive distancing. I love when things are named in a unique way, but this is a name that I have to know more about. Because distancing, you know, maybe it's just the, the COVID hangover, but I think of social distancing, I think of something that we push away. You talk about productive distancing. So how can distancing be productive for brands? 

J.B. 

Oh my gosh. It's not just productive, it's essential. I mean, we've positioned over 80 brands over the course of the last 15 to 20 years, and I took a step back and I really looked at, what is the common theme that most of these clients are dealing with and going through as they're exploring this positioning process. And one thing I hear most often is the phrase, I'm too close to it. And so, I started to think about that a little more. This analogy I love to use is that you're inside the jar and you can't read the label. It’s really when you're working in your business, it's really tough sometimes to take a step back and see the big picture. And so, productive distancing is a series of techniques that helps you read between the lines of your own stories and find the true potential that really lives inside your brand. And, and that's what we use typically to position and evolve brands in a productive way. 

N.W.

I love that. Your inside-the-jar metaphor surpasses what I usually go with. It might seem a bit graphic, but I often say we're like doctors, and it's hard to perform surgery on yourself. It's a perspective that doesn't work. So, this idea of productive distancing for brands is not just important, but it's essential. What are some of the first steps in arriving at the right amount of distance?

J.B.

Well, I think the first step is recognizing that you have this problem! Not everyone is convinced that they do. Maybe they're looking at different data sets and feel they have a sense for a need for change in brand evolution, or maybe they understand the direction they need to go. In many cases, that may be true, but it's not always the whole story. The story starts, in my opinion, inside the business. Many brand strategists tend to start the process looking outside the business, at competitive data, market opportunity, or standing out in a saturated market. However, if you don't understand what is true, real, and authentic inside the business first, that information has no bearing. Our distancing techniques start inside the jar before we move away from it to see the true opportunity.

N.W.

That's a powerful point. Like you said, I laughed at it, but the first step is knowing you have the problem, and that alone is no small thing. Given the matter of being inside the jar and perspective, can you walk us through an example of discovering this distance for a client?

J.B.

Certainly. We always start with the executive team, conducting qualitative interviews typical to any brand discovery intake form. Questions like, "Tell me in five statements or less what the business does" or "What is the true value proposition of the business?" We gauge the perception of the business through the eyes of the leadership. From there, we identify assumptions, pull together a quantitative survey for employees, measuring gaps in perception between leadership and the front lines. This exercise reveals discrepancies and common themes in strengths. We do this before talking to any customers or looking at external data.

N.W.

That's important, especially the gap between what people are saying at all levels. It's often the most simple things that are the most important. For example, in positioning 101, we talk about the category of business. What category are you in? What's your industry? When we ask executives and employees, in five statements or less, what the business does, we're looking for consistency in defining the business category. Starting with the basics is often missed but crucial.

J.B.

Absolutely. In many cases, it's the simple things that are the most important. For example, in positioning 101, we talk about the category of business. What category are you in? What's your industry? When we ask executives and employees in five statements or less to define the business, we're looking for consistency in the category. So when we bring that information to the table, the leadership often realizes they're having an identity crisis. They weren't even aware, but it shows up in search issues, sales conversations, and more. We start with the basics and build from there.

N.W.

Well, and we talked a bit about you know, that it was what I shared a chuckle on of, of, leaders not realizing that that's the problem. But it's, it is a hard time to be a, a, a leader at an organization with these challenges. So in working with leaders specifically, how can you lead this kind of alignment and transformation internally?

J.B.

Oh, wow, Nick, that's a million-dollar question, isn't it? Ha!

N.W.

There you go. I teed it all up.

J.B.

Well, the way that we have handled this, and we've worked with Fortune 500 companies like Nestle, and then our, you know, everyone down to like a local restaurant franchise. Of course, it's different in every size and structure. But I think the first must-have in the equation is that the leadership team has defined a specific committee for this initiative. That committee should include people at various levels of the organization—executive leadership, sales, marketing, and someone with direct customer relationships. So that you have a committee dedicated to thinking through the process with intention. These are big decisions. Once we go through the process, which usually involves in-person sessions, that committee not only makes decisions together, but they also become ambassadors for the change throughout the organization. I think that's key.

N.W. 

So when we were talking earlier, you mentioned that in addition to your expertise around positioning, you're working on a lot of refreshes as a team. Walk us through that because I think that kind of fits our theme of these things that, you know, we think are, you know, it's a switch that we're gonna throw, but it's a much bigger process to refresh a brand. Because what we're really refreshing, I feel like we think of it as the coat of paint a lot, and it's really something much deeper. It's really the brand strategy as well.

J.B.

Yeah, I like to use this story about personal growth. I often compare personal growth to brand growth because it makes it easy for people to really think about that in their own lives. When you think about how you show up in the world, Nick, I'm sure you're very different. You speak very different, you dress very different than you did when you were a teenager or in college even, right? Ha! And I think we all do, especially those who are ambitious and strive for growth. So when we're working with businesses who are also ambitious and strive for growth, it's essential for those businesses to take a step back and understand, "I am a mature business. I am expecting to garner the price points of a more mature business, but my brand is showing up in the world as a teenager". It doesn't showcase the sophistication of our thought leadership, doesn't tell the story of our unique value proposition, and certainly doesn't look or feel like how we present ourselves in person. So, a lot of times, you can't really put your finger on that. It's a feeling. It almost feels like my pants are too tight. Like, I feel like I'm outgrowing, I'm scaling beyond the brand. And I think once you have awareness of that, you have to seek out the right people, the right team to help guide you through that change. We specialize in brand refresh because we love evolution and change. We are committed to helping our clients move through that change with processes that support them so that they can make decisions confidently and clearly.

N.W.

I love that comparison of clothing and how you're showing up. Showing up like a teenager is brands, and it's a real fun and accessible way of talking about it. But as you were walking through that, I really thought this is those simple, like so many simple things, it's much more sophisticated than it could sound on the surface. And I think that's a powerful exercise in taking clients through, especially when talking about something that is a very big move to refresh a brand. A lot of times, we see people doing it just because they're tired of the look and feel and aesthetic, but it's not based on what we were just talking about, which is a disparity between the brand as it's showing up in the world and who you really are. It's back to that same gap that we were talking about earlier, right?

J.B.

Yes. I think it's important to communicate that a brand refresh does not have to be an overhaul. We don't have to chuck everything out the window and start from scratch. That's very expensive and time-consuming, takes 18 to 24 months in many cases. We're advocating for starting from the inside, understanding what strengths are already there, what we can use as a foundation and a springboard. We're not tossing the equity that is already inside the company. That is something that our clients find a lot of comfort in because it is this sense of change. This can be very anxiety-producing.

N.W.

Yeah. Say more about that because I do think that that's, especially on the client side, that is a common conception and perhaps a misconception too that, oh, we're doing this. So it is stripped down to the studs, gonna be different. But you mention a real important point of almost sounds like not throwing the brand out with the bath water.

J.B.

Yes. Stripping down to the studs is a great analogy to build on because it is a bit like that domino effect. "Oh, I just want to change my countertops," but now I learned that my cabinets are rotting. So now I have to change those. I think you have to go into this process knowing the totality of the job in front of you. Then we can work resourcefully to avoid some of those bigger expenses. Where I see this, even if your listeners aren't family businesses, family businesses are one of my favorite types of clients to work with because we often have an older generation looking at an exit. The younger generation has been trained to move into a leadership role. They have their own vision, mission, and goals, and they want to build on the success of their parents. The older generation is often worried, having put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into the equity inside this company. The younger generation coming in, we don't want to disrupt that. We want to be respectful to the strengths and the reputation of the older generation. Still, we really want to work hard to give the new generation something they can sink their teeth into, something they can feel ownership around. There's often a happy medium there where it's like, "How do we build on the look and the position of one generation to build into the aspirations of the next?"

N.W.

That is such a great point. I love the example too of the family business. There also, I'm guessing there's not a super easy answer to the question of, okay, so in finding that, is there—I'm gonna overuse this metaphor of home improvement—but is there anything that helps you zero in on what are the important things that we shouldn't get rid of related to our brand?

J.B.

This speaks to the next phase of the productive distancing process, moving from an internal orientation to align with an external perception. When we ask the question of the employees and the leadership, "How does XYZ company provide value to its customers?" we often get a set of maybe eight to ten statements, all set in different ways but with common themes. We want to ask the customers that by filtering through segment or type. That is one of the primary questions on our quantitative customer survey. We list those value propositions and have the customers rank them. Most times they're different based on the persona filter, but often points one and two are the same. So when we bring that back to our clients, they're like, "Whoa, wow. We didn't even think that was important." Or maybe they did, but now we know we can build on that and put more fuel to that fire, build that service set in a bigger, better way. To me, that is like the center point or the spark that the new brand, the evolved brand, can really hang its hat on and move forward with some confidence.

N.W.

I, that's great, and I love that it too kind of addresses that matter of perspective that can make that difficult to see, and you can make that decision based on what your external clients, customers, audience actually thinks. Jackie, I've smiled a lot during our conversation with all of our different metaphors, and now it is my favorite part of the show because I get to ask you for a brand that has made you smile recently.

J.B.

So I'm gonna tell you a bit of a, it's not a controversial brand, but I wouldn't necessarily go to this website if you're sitting at work. It's called Shiney, and it's an underwear brand. I first came across this brand; I received one of their catalogs years ago. They have this awesome holiday catalog, and it is the most irreverent and voice I have ever seen. Their emails, their catalogs, their website. I am now a subscriber, a monthly subscriber to their product. I highly recommend you check it out. I actually looked them up on LinkedIn and sent their marketing director a compliment. I was like, I don't know who your copywriter is, but please walk over and give them a high five immediately because the, I mean, it is, it is from a brand perspective so confident, bold, and funny. So check it out.

N.W.

I know the brand of which you speak, and you're absolutely right. Great example. And one that I wish I remembered more when talking about a brand with a compelling, unique interesting brand voice unlike any other. I love the idea that if there's a brand that makes you smile, you should go somewhere; that copywriter should get a high five. I love it. Jackie, where can folks go to learn more about who you are and what you do?

J.B.

Well, thank you for asking. My firm's website is museheadquarters.com. We also have an Instagram with the same handle, and you can find me on LinkedIn at Jackie Bebenroth.

N.W.

Awesome. Well, we will link up to all of that in our show notes, which folks can find at onbrandandpodcast.com. Jackie Bebenroth, thanks for being on brand with us.

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